Like most men in their mid-twenties, I play video games (probably a little too much), and one game that I particularly enjoyed playing through was Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. During the quest line involving the (lamely-named) “Fighter’s Guild,” your character is tasked with infiltrating a rival organization and seeing how they operate. While “under cover,” you are ordered, along with a small squad of compatriots, to rid a town of goblins. So, you take part in this ceremony, drink some magic juice, pass out, and wake up in the town and surrounded by goblins. Of course, you easily dispatch of the gross green men and pass out again. When you come to, it becomes apparent that you were slaughtering the townsfolk; apparently whatever you drank made you, despite your character’s good (or evil) intentions, murder a bunch of innocent people.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with religion? Well, pretty much everything. Religion has the uncanny ability to make otherwise good people do awful, terrible things. The only differences are that the perpetrators don’t have to drink anything and that those awful actions are real and have very real consequences.
Firstly, I’m not going to deal with the plague of Islamic Terrorism in this post. That topic, while important, has been discussed ad nauseum on the internet and elsewhere. There is also a quote about good people needing religion to act badly, but it’s so trite that I don’t want to use it. What I’m going to focus on are the woefully under reported religious roots of other well-known atrocities.
With the recent proliferation of the “Kony 2012” video by the group Invisible Children, much-needed attention has been brought to the horrors perpetrated by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (that should be a big hint as to his motives). These horrors are well documented and I don’t need to expand on them here, but what is missing from that video, and most discussion of this horrific madman and his brainwashed child soldiers, is the Christian roots of this madness. Kony, as noted in Hitchens’ God is Not Great, derives much of his authority, and his power, from his background as a member of a priestly Christian family. According to Hitchens, Kony is:
…a passionate former altar boy who wanted to subject the area to the rule of the Ten Commandments. He baptized by oil and water, held fierce ceremonies of punishment and purification, and insured his followers against death. His was a fanatical preachment of Christianity…
…It was also true that people were apt to believe he could work miracles, by appealing to the spirit world and promising his acolytes that they were death-proof.
Of course this is far from the mainstream Christianity espoused by so many nice people, and sure, the religious indoctrination is supplemented by vile and heinous forms of brainwashing that should make any decent person shudder. That does not excuse religious belief, and it’s unique ability to be used to justify anything ever, for it’s role in this insanity. Speaking of Africa, if you want to read about the Catholic Church’s role in the Rwandan Genocide, read this.
Now let’s talk about Nazis–and no, I’m not going to speculate on whether or not Hitler was a Christian because it’s not necessary for my point. In post-Wiemar Germany, you had a very, very Christian majority. A Christian majority that, despite the fact that not all of them were terrible people, was more than willing to eat up vile, disgusting rhetoric about their Jewish neighbors and, in turn, sell them out to death squads (as with almost everything, there are exceptions). Absent their beliefs that the Jews were deicidal maniacs and sought to enslave Christians, these otherwise good people probably would not have relegated their Hebrew neighbors to subhuman status–lest we believe that the Germany of the ’40s and ’50s was absolutely chock full of monsters.
This isn’t to say that all Christians (or all religious people, for that matter) would go and conscript children into a guerrilla army, slaughter their neighbors, or be complicit in genocide. No, what I’m saying is that these atrocities (and ones like them) required the type of groupthink that religious authorities (and others, such as Communists) traffic in. They required the slavish submission to authority. They required the suspension of reason and the quashing of dissent and inquiry. As artist Francisco Goya said on the canvas more succinctly than I could in words:
If proponents of peace and civil rights truly want to end the atrocities of the past–if they really wanted to stop the Konies and the Hitlers of the world–they would recognize that the heart of the monster lies in the groupthink, slavish submission to authority, and the suspension (and persecution) of reason necessary for religions to grow and prosper.